New (or renewed) guidance from the U.S. Department of Education, combined with a new coalition of civil rights groups filing lawsuits against charters in several states, have placed new scrutiny on the admissions practices of charter schools. As Missouri, and other states, continue to expand their reliance on charter schools for providing public education now is a good time to review some of the legal dangers unique to charter education. Hit the jump for a quick and dirty overview of a few of these developments…
The first new development is a “Dear Colleague” letter released by the Department of Education on May 14, 2014 (available here). The letter canvasses the variety of civil rights laws that apply to charter schools, including:
- Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (prohibiting discrimination based on race, color, or national origin);
- Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (prohibiting discrimination based on sex); and
- Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title II of the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 (prohibiting discrimination based on disability).
While these statutes apply to all public schools, the letter addresses some of the unique ways they apply to charter schools. First and foremost, the letter noted that charter schools must be careful that their admissions process is not discriminatory. Unlike traditional public schools, who must admit anyone within certain geographic bounds, charter schools can exercise some discretion in deciding who to admit. Ensuring a nondiscriminatory admissions process goes beyond merely using a nondiscriminatory evaluation for student admissions, the school must also be sure not to discriminate against parents who may not be proficient in English or who suffer from disabilities.
Second, charter schools must provide appropriate services to students with disabilities or English-language learners. Charters must take steps to identify and support both of these communities of students. For special education students, charter schools are still responsible for providing the same “free appropriate public education” as any public school, which may entail providing additional services or modifying nonacademic and extracurricular services so that students with disabilities can fully participate. For English-language learners, the charter schools must take steps to identify students who are struggling with reading, writing, speaking, or understanding English and then provide language instruction to those students.
Last but not least, charter schools must ensure that discipline is not handled in a discriminatory manner. In January the Department of Education and Department of Justice issued a joint “Dear Colleague” letter on nondiscrimination in school punishment (available here). The DOE/DOJ letter goes much further into depth about these issues, but the most recent letter is clear that charter schools must be careful in the use of discipline to ensure it is not being used disproportionately against students of color and students with disabilities.
To demonstrate just how important it is for charter schools to be aware of their legal responsibilities, the day before the Department of Education’s letter, a group called the Journey for Justice Alliance, a coalition of community and education justice organizations from across the country, filed lawsuits against charter schools in three different states (press release and complaints available here, hat tip to Legal Clips for also covering these lawsuits). These lawsuits, filed in Chicago, New Orleans, and Newark (New Jersey), allege that public school closings have disproportionately affected minority communities, forcing them into charter schools that also discriminate against minorities. While it may be years before these suits are concluded, in the light of potential litigation and guidance from the DOE, every charter should be carefully considering their policies and procedures.